It’s especially ironic that Bioware's own would-be Latiners have chosen to mount their defense on the hill of “artistic integrity,” considering that their failure to trust in the integrity of their own creation is most directly responsible for ME3’s disastrous ending. The artistic vision of Mass Effect was never its visual style, nor its combat, nor even its story, because there was no one story: everyone’s Shepard played out differently. It was the unprecedented interactivity that allowed players to shape their own story.
This story, though, was never a complex one. It followed the highly conventional heroic arc of a man who rose from humble origins to lead a struggle against near-impossible odds. Its main themes were simple and familiar: things like the value of self-determination and the strength that can be achieved through unity of purpose. If there was one lesson that pervaded the series, it was that by working together and trusting in your friends you can overcome obstacles you never thought possible. So, in other words, it was pretty much like every other RPG ever made in that respect.
Interactive fiction generally works best when painted with a relatively broad brush, and like Star Trek before it Mass Effect was driven more by the primary-color personal stories of the crew than by subtle, high-concept philosophical themes. The two most memorable sequences of the first two games, Virmire and the suicide mission, stood out not because of the vastness of their scope but because of the intimacy of their detail. On Virmire, ME1’s signature moment, the writers took the time to introduce us to Captain Kirrahe and the Salarians. We talked to them; we saw that Kirrahe was a brave and competent leader; we experienced the inspiring “Hold the Line” speech alongside his men. Then we went the extra mile and sent one of our own Alliance crew (we get to choose which) into danger with him. The result of this setup was that the distraction team was no longer just a faceless collection of redshirts hauling the plot mechanically forward: they became people that we cared about.
This emotional connection provided added motivation to keep them safe and the game rewarded you for playing well by allowing you to do just that, until you ran out of third options and finally had make a difficult choice between two of your crewmates who have been with you since the beginning. This moment, where the game took a deep, portentous breath, the camera focused on Shepard and you made the call on who lived and who died, succeeded spectacularly for several reasons. It flowed naturally from the sense of desperation that had ratcheted upward from the start of Virmire, never seeming abrupt or contrived. Even though you couldn’t avoid the decision, it was ultimately up to you who died, thus preserving a meaningful level of interactivity. In fact, in my own game Kaiden’s brave response to the situation had the side effect ofdramatically raising my opinion of him, where I’d been fairly ambivalent up to that point. That was powerful stuff, and while heartbreaking it was also memorable for all the right reasons.
Later, you had the opportunity to make another key decision, this time about the fate of the Council. As with Virmire, though, this choice was the product of extensive buildup that we experienced over the course of the game. From the very beginning you had to
fight tooth and nail to get the Council to acknowledge the truth about their golden boy, Saren, and they resented that you were right and they were wrong. Your induction as a Spectre was presented as a grudging concession to political necessity. They proceeded to second-guess your every move and their attitudes toward you ranged from condescending to openly contemptuous. Then, at the end, the tables were turned and you could decide either that the Council is hopelessly broken or to look past their foolishness and decide that continuing to work within the system is in everyone’s best interests. Both options were equally valid, arrived after substantial buildup that we ourselves witnessed, had clear benefits and drawbacks, and set a distinctive and internally-consistent philosophical tone for your character that propagated into ME2.
Surprisingly, for all that ME2 “streamlined” away so many of ME1’s more distinctive features the storytelling approach remained largely intact. In designing the suicide mission, the writers were savvy enough to understand why the previous game was satisfying and crafted a scenario in which you were not attacking the Collector base merely to save “the galaxy.” You were there to save Dr. Chakwas, and Donnelley & Daniels, and Kelly Chambers, and the rest of the Normandy’s crew. They were not “humanity,” the concept; they were actual
humans with names and faces, people you’d talked with and played poker with and drank with. They fed your fish and bantered with each other in the engine room. The Collectors were not just some impersonal force threatening “Earth.” They were the bastards who invaded your home and kidnapped or killed your friends. It’s not complicated, but building the action around these details made it personal, and therefore made it work. See, when you spend all your time alone in your tower contemplating "humanity," you end up like the Illusive Man. When you spend your time down on the ground with actual humans, well, that's where you find Commander Shepard.
For a while longer the pattern held, at least through ME3’s middle act. Rannoch was not about exploring the compatibility of organics and synthetics; it was about Tali and Legion. Tuchanka was not an abstract meditation on the ethics of science and warfare; it was about Wrex and Mordin. Every major event had a name and a face attached to it, and individuals made all the difference in the outcome. That’s why people really cared about these stories. Then, for reasons known only to them, they decided they had to go big. They zoomed out the camera to capture the grand panoramic sweep, and in doing so lost sight of what made these stories truly worthwhile.
Maybe they genuinely thought this was what people wanted; maybe they just didn’t understand their own creation; or maybe the temptation to make their presence known and place their distinctive stamp on the outcome was just too much for Casey Hudson & Co. to resist. Whatever the reason, straightforward plot progression gave way to cryptic, surreal, slow-motion sequences straight out of Max Payne. Your friends and allies who had been at your side the whole journey helping you overcome every obstacle were summarily sent packing; the new high-concept story has no time for such trifles (note that even before reaching the Citadel, not one previous character or decision you’ve influenced has any significant impact on the way either the ground or space battles play out). And lest the ignorant peasants muck up the grand design, meaningful interaction via the dialogue wheel—the defining gameplay mechanic of the series—was done away with when it was needed the most.
And people, by and large, hated it.
I’ve heard it described as fumbling at the 1-yard line, but it’s worse than that. It’s like they marched the ball down the field with a solid running game, and then when it was 1st and 10 at the 1 they suddenly decided to run some flashy reverse option that resulted in a 104-yard pick 6.
So, when I hear Bioware loudly congratulating themselves on their “vision” while remaining conspicuously silent on the subject of what exactly is so great about it; when I see reviewers striving breathlessly to outdo one another in singing Bioware’s praises while ignoring the catalog of problems that so vex the unwashed masses, I can’t help thinking that this whole episode says a lot more about a juvenile industry desperate for a gloss of cultural credibility than it does about ME3. Then I’m reminded of the difference between the genuine creation of art and the affectation of what Chesterton called the “artistic temperament. As the widespread, visceral revulsion to ME3’s ending indicates, even an audience “brainwashed to equate artsiness with art,” to use Myers’ apt phrase, can sense the emperor has no clothes.
The sad thing is, this bluff has worked so well for Bioware that I half-suspect they’re starting to believe it themselves. They have no idea what they’re trying to say, but they’ll defend to the death their license to charge us $60 for saying it.